The government, any government, might as well enact an ordinance banning regret as trying to ban tattoos, ugly though many of them are. The District of Columbia health department announced a mandatory 24-hour waiting period for tattoos and piercings as part of a 66-page package of draft rules regulating the city’s flourishing business in “body art,” which is usually long on body and short on art. The regulators want to protect a man from waking up after painting the town with “Mom” permanently stenciled on his bicep.
The D.C. government always wants to impose a waiting period when officials can’t ban something that annoys them. It’s always in the name of preserving the public’s health and safety. When the U.S. Supreme Court told the District it couldn’t ban handguns, the D.C. Council scattered a dozen hurdles, including a 10-day waiting period, in the path of anyone on the scout for an innocent .38. The aldermen, on the other hand, would never presume to impose even a 24-minute wait on someone seeking an abortion, which is arguably riskier, and certainly more permanent, than a butterfly on an innocent bottom.
Back when only Popeye and the likes of sailors on leave in Singapore collected tattoos, no one regarded them as body art. But whether a tiny flower on an ankle or NBA-style shoulder-to-wrist mural, tattoos have become pervasive social statements, and no longer limited to soldier, sailor or even to men. Young women sometimes cover their bodies with needlework called “tramp stamps.” D.C. politicians think they’re called to do something about it.
Taking time to think hard when making a decision with permanent implications is always a good idea. What does Jack do if he gets his sweetheart’s name tattooed on his forearm the day before he gets a Dear John letter? If skin is to be the artist’s canvas, sleeping on it — or sleeping it off — might be a better idea.
But many art lovers enter the tattoo parlor after long, hard thought about design. For them, the tattoo is a personal statement about the world and their place in it. It’s free expression that government has no business preventing or even discouraging. The First Amendment applies to miniatures and murals on skin, too, and says nothing about taste, good or bad. Besides, taste is above a bureaucrat’s pay grade.
Making “bad decisions” is a basic human right, after all. Regret can be a great teacher, encouraging better decision-making in the wake of a lesson learned. It’s not the government’s place to eliminate risk in the way a citizen lives his life, whether it’s the size of his soda, how much salt he sprinkles on a tomato or excusing himself to the front porch to take a few puffs on a Lucky Strike. Consequences are a birthright. When the aldermen of the nation’s capital feel the urge to impose a waiting period, they should impose it on themselves.